Just Keep Climbing & Jumping: Tomb Raider's Pacing & Exploration as a Research Journey

The idea of pacing within a game is not new and certainly not unique to one genre or another. Action, adventure, role-playing, and even puzzle games all require a consideration of pacing. How the player progresses, how the action moves, and how layers of challenge are added are all pacing concepts within game design. The idea of pacing in lesson planning and classroom instruction is not new either, pacing set by teachers, students, or combinations of both are all applied. Education literature has witnessed pendulum swings back and forth between rapid teacher-directed classroom pacing and student-directed variable pacing. Two separate math classrooms found different results in pacing. Sangster (2007) found a quicker paced classroom was beneficial. Vaughan (2005) found that students were more successful when they were able to set their own pacing of a unit before beginning.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary’s challenge in pacing stems its’ heritage and its’ isolated atmosphere. The game throws a large and seemingly open area to explore. The player can explore every gap, cave, and reachable outcropping trying to find artifacts, ammo, and other hidden items. Or the player can seek out the most direct and efficient route out of the room puzzle, progressing forward to the larger goal. This initially creates the feeling of a large area to explore, but quickly the player learns there is typically one, and only one, way to get past the puzzles. There are frequent dead ends for players exploring the area seeking out additional health, ammo, or “lost artifacts.”

The level design does give the player the ability to set their own pace, exploring the open areas for every item or seeking out the solution to the next area. Unfortunately, the level design often creates conflicting pacing. Those looking for the direct route end up exploring because the solution is not immediately clear. And those seeking out each item may stumble upon the exit only to have to return for missed exploration. Over the course of the first half of the game, I’ve experienced both situations.

I believe the game is designed with a slower, methodical pace. A pace that encourages exploration. A pace that reminds the player of how isolated the explorer/robber Lara is. And a pace that was born during an area of game design when there were not clear (or even often stated) objectives, tutorials were not common place, and the rise of game walkthroughs (and sites like gamefaqs.com) were only beginning.

The result of this perceived exploratory freedom is my frequent frustration about where to go and frequent restarts due to missed jumps. The ideas here of pacing tie directly into the directions (and lack of) given to the player. The game asks the player to explore the surroundings and enjoy the journey. While I enjoyed the journey in the first area, by the second area I was focused on the outcome rather than the journey's exploration. I was just trying to get to the next area and goal.

The recent Destrutoid rant on exploration and my classes this week shifted my experience and expectations with Tomb Raider's pacing. The Destrutoid rant talked about exploration in games as a means to either power up and add abilities or as simply as a means to explore and discover. The contrast of exploring to discover and exploring to achieve a goal are at odds with their pacing. When a player's goal is finishing the level or gaining the new ability a tighter, faster pacing keeps the game moving forward and the player engaged in progressing. When the goal is exploration the pacing can be more open and set by the player. These two paces echo Sangster (2007) and Vaughan (2005) from above. The challenge for Tomb Raider: Anniversary is meeting the players' expectation of pacing. When my goal shifted from enjoying the journey to reaching the next area and objective, I was at odds with the game.

Being at odds with the game's exploration pacing, paralleled one instruction experience this week. An undergraduate art history course was looking specifically for articles and resources on their paints and were struggling to find more than a few exact matches. Their goal was to get the required sources and move on to the next assignment and area of their work. The project required them to find tangential sources exploring themes and imagery. The students expectations of classroom pacing were not to search and expand their knowledge and understanding, they were searching to complete the assignment. This difference in research goals effected their expectations on exploration of resources.

In tightly focused research session, the student is able to quickly and efficiently find resources needed. Unfortunately, this can often be interpreted by students as doing a search and finding the closest articles within the first page or two of results. This is not a new concern or expectation by students. Librarians often struggle to help students dig deeper than the top results or to refine a search beyond the "good enough" articles. But when the exploration goal is a quickly paced task to the next assignment, their expectations are at odds with the frequent messy reality of a research journey.

We must also realize that our expectations can be at odds with the students as well. Just as I was frustrated with Tomb Raider slow exploratory pacing, our students get frustrated with libraries with vast resource options to explore. They just want clear directions through the assignment to reach their goal. Not every class can enjoy the journey as much as a Master's of Education class I worked with this week. After three hours of research exploration, and two reams of paper later, they were still enjoying the exploration of every resource and treasure hunt for each new piece of research.

That is the pacing and joy of exploration Tomb Raider: Anniversary expects of its' players. But I was the undergraduate student who just wanted to find my way out of this research cave and out into the daylight of the next assignment. This is a lesson in pacing and exploration that I can take with me into each classroom setting. While I can attempt to inspire the joys of exploration in students, I can also help them understand which path out of their research is the most effective. Just as Tomb Raider's series of jumps, climbs, and ledges may not always feel like the fastest way out of an area, it is often the most effective. In research, sometimes the required information is direct and accessing it is quickly paced. But there are other times when we can help students through the most effective path, which often includes jumps from one database and source to another.

But unlike Tomb Raider's isolated environment, we can help our students understand why this winding research path is important to achieving their desired goal. Unlike Tomb Raider, where the Sherpa died in the opening scene, the individual student is not alone on this exploration. Librarians are there to help pace the exploration, providing both a growing understanding of the journey as a process and effective routes through the deep caverns of research projects.

Sangster, Margaret. 2007. "REFLECTING ON PACE." MT: Mathematics Teaching no. 204: 34-36.

Vaughan, Angela L. 2005. "The Self-Paced Student." Educational Leadership 62, no. 7: 69-73.

images from TombRaiders.net


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